Set­ting Up Your VHF Life­line

Passage Maker - - Contents - Vi­tonne

Most of my ca­reer in the USCG was spent lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio. Flying over the ocean, look­ing for the lost or other­wise miss­ing, I was al­ways tuned in and scan­ning the VHF band. Lis­ten­ing to what boaters said—and didn’t say—I learned over the years that ra­dios are fre­quently mis­used, their ca­pa­bil­i­ties are mis­un­der­stood, and very few know how to use them prop­erly in an emer­gency.

In the he­li­copter, I was usu­ally too busy to chime in with a cor­rec­tion when a long con­ver­sa­tion was tak­ing place on Chan­nel 16 or one ves­sel was ig­nor­ing the calls of an­other. Other boaters could al­ways be counted on to call the novice out for his mis­take and egos were beaten up pretty reg­u­larly. But the prob­lem is more than just one of eti­quette, know­ing the chan­nels, and the re­spon­si­ble use of the air­ways. In an emer­gency, han­dling your ra­dio in­cor­rectly can cost you a lot more than your pride. Know­ing every­thing you can about your VHF can mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween mak­ing it home and not. First Things First: Set Up Your Ra­dio Cor­rectly My most gen­er­ous guess is that one ra­dio in ten is prop­erly in­stalled and set up. Mak­ing sure you are on the good side of that guess means do­ing three things that most boaters never do: ver­i­fy­ing the in­stal­la­tion, con­nect­ing the GPS, and reg­is­ter­ing the ra­dio. Too of­ten a ra­dio is in­stalled by sim­ply screw­ing the an­tenna into the back and with one ra­dio check the in­staller claims suc­cess. A ra­dio in­stalled this way for­feits most of its emer­gency ca­pa­bil­i­ties and may have a poor trans­mit range of only a few miles.


To en­sure the max­i­mum power out­put of any ra­dio (VHF or other­wise) you’ll want to ver­ify the in­stal­la­tion by mea­sur­ing the stand­ing wave ra­tio (SWR) be­tween the ra­dio and the an­tenna. Not do­ing this can cost you sig­nif­i­cant range.

Wires and an­ten­nas can eat power, weak­en­ing the sig­nal. The SWR mea­sures the elec­tri­cal bal­ance be­tween your ra­dio and the an­tenna. The lower the ra­tio, the stronger the sig­nal you can trans­mit. High SWR (greater than 2.5 to 1) most of­ten points to dirty or bad con­nec­tions, worn or old wiring, or, less of­ten, a poor an­tenna. You’re hop­ing for 1.5 to 1 or bet­ter, but you’ll likely need sol­dered con­nec­tions to achieve that. If all of this has you scratch­ing your head, that’s okay. Go to and find a Cer­ti­fied Ma­rine Elec­tron­ics Tech­ni­cian (CMET) in your area. Techs can check your in­stall and make sure you are get­ting all the power you can out of your ra­dio.


The next thing so of­ten left un­done by boaters is con­nect­ing the boat’s GPS to the VHF. A CMET can help with this too, but it is usu­ally pretty sim­ple and the in­struc­tions are al­ways listed in the owner’s man­ual. Yours may have GPS built in, but if not, mak­ing this con­nec­tion will be a game- changer should you ever have to hit that lit­tle red but­ton marked

“Distress.” Used prop­erly, that lit­tle red but­ton makes your VHF a su­per- ra­dio.

Once you push “Distress” and you tell the Coast Guard who you are, the name of your ves­sel, your con­tact ashore, your ex­act lo­ca­tion, and the na­ture of your emer­gency, you will also be si­mul­ta­ne­ously send­ing a distress mes­sage to ev­ery ves­sel with an an­tenna in line of sight with yours. Your EPIRB can’t do that. Your cell or satel­lite phone can’t do that. AIS can’t do that. To make it all work, how­ever, you have to get a mar­itime mo­bile ser­vice iden­tity (MMSI) num­ber and reg­is­ter your ra­dio. With­out this small (and free) ef­fort on your part, you are giv­ing up ar­guably the best distress com­mu­ni­ca­tions tool for near-shore emer­gen­cies ever in­vented. Don’t be one of those boaters.


Your VHF owner’s man­ual also in­cludes in­struc­tions for set­ting “Dual Watch” or “Triple Watch” scans. Your ra­dio can be pro­grammed to lis­ten on 9, 16, and 22, the three chan­nels I rec­om­mend for a con­stant lis­ten­ing watch. I don’t think you need to mem­o­rize them, but you should have a list of all chan­nels next to the ra­dio so you use only the ones you should and stay off the ones you shouldn’t. Search­ing “VHF chan­nels list” on­line will net you sev­eral op­tions


for an easy print­out.

When mak­ing a call to an­other ves­sel or to the Coast Guard, al­ways be con­scious of that high/low power set­ting. On your ra­dio, this is usu­ally a but­ton marked “H/ L.” You should use the low power set­ting when talk­ing to boats at close range or when you are in high­traf­fic ar­eas. The high set­ting (25 times the power) is for re­ally reach­ing out in an off­shore emer­gency. Us­ing low power when­ever pos­si­ble makes ev­ery­one safer. It means that some­one in distress 15 miles away won’t be “stepped on” by you hail­ing your friends.


In my life, I’ve never heard a boater call “Pan Pan.” The “Pan Pan” call is the distress com­mu­ni­ca­tion that is sup­posed to come be­fore “May­day.” When a boater calls “May­day” be­cause the wa­ter is up to their an­kles, they should have called “Pan Pan” when they first no­ticed the leak com­ing in around the shaft seal.

If you smell smoke on your boat and you can’t fig­ure out where it is com­ing from, call “Pan Pan.” If you are hav­ing nav­i­ga­tion is­sues and aren’t sure where you are in the world, ask the boaters around you for help.

In all that time lis­ten­ing to boaters on the ra­dio, the worst thing I ever heard was si­lence. The most egre­gious misuse of the VHF ma­rine ra­dio is that they are of­ten used too late or not at all. Set up cor­rectly, and with a lit­tle knowl­edge and prac­tice, your ra­dio is the best tool you have to avoid trou­ble or to call for help if you can’t.


Mario Vittone is a re­tired U.S. Coast Guard he­li­copter res­cue swim­mer, who for 22 years res­cued boaters in distress from the tur­bu­lent wa­ters of the At­lantic Ocean and Gulf of Mex­ico. He served two tours as a res­cue swim­mer at Air Sta­tion El­iz­a­beth City, North Carolina, and one at Air Sta- tion New Or­leans, Louisiana. Vittone was also an in­struc­tor and course de­vel­oper at the Avi­a­tion Tech­ni­cal Train­ing Cen­ter in El­iz­a­beth City be­fore re­tir­ing in 2013. An ex­pert in im­mer­sion hy­pother­mia, drown­ing, sea sur­vival, and safety at sea, he to­day writes and lec­tures on boat­ing safety and search-and-res­cue top­ics for pop­u­lar print pub­li­ca­tions.

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